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This month, The Times released their annual International Fast Track 100 list, which calculates the fastest-growing UK companies in term of international sales over the last two years (where we were very pleased to see Lingo24 place at number 81).

But are these top exporting companies holding themselves back by not going multilingual?

Despite the UK being the world’s sixth largest exporter of goods and services, nearly 70% of British SMEs aren’t exporting, nor are they likely to, according to a recent survey by the British Chamber of Commerce. So it’s encouraging to see that every entry on the International Track 100 has seen its foreign sales double.

The release of the Fast Track 100 list coincides with a new report from the European Commission which found that 9 out of 10 EU internet users agreed that given a choice, they would prefer to visit a website in their own native language. 

I was curious to find after a quick Google trawl that only 24 of the 100 International Fast Track companies had a version of their main website in a language other than English. And how many in the top ten had translated sites? A baffling zero.

While their success and appearance alone in such a list is to be applauded, it raises the important question of exactly why these companies are not choosing to reach out to consumers in their own tongue and localise their e-commerce websites.

Indeed, the European Commission’s report found that 42% of all respondents would never buy anything online that they couldn’t read about in their native language. These are all potential customers that over three-quarters of the 100 fastest-growing UK companies are missing out on.

And the more you look at the facts, the more obvious it is that businesses—especially those looking to grow overseas—should be getting involved with the foreign language internet.

For starters, you’re sure to see a higher ROI for online marketing campaigns in language other than English simply because there is less foreign language content overall, and therefore less competition. It makes reaching the top of the search engine rankings much easier, much more cost-effective and paves the way for those all-important click-throughs and conversions. 

Of those businesses on the list that have already taken advantage of the foreign language internet, we must surmise that these efforts have bolstered their success in an otherwise fragile market.

Online betting powerhouse, PKR (at number 41), for example, tailors its user experience according to what language the consumer speaks, while number 14, Chain Reaction Cycles, benefits from the simple business formula of selling its goods in seven different languages across the world.

It makes perfect sense – the spending power of non-English speaking online consumers is growing dramatically, but you need to speak their language. If your web presence is English-only, you’re missing out on your share of the market.

With British politicians talking about plans to regenerate and grow the economy, exports are high on the agenda right now in the UK, particularly in Scotland where recent election victors, the Scottish National Party, vowed to increase exports from the country by 50% over the next six years.

The trick that many pundits are missing, though, when they talk about increasing exports, is that it can be done easily and affordably via multilingual ecommerce. The problem, as a quick scan of the Fast Track list shows, is that British business is still scared of trying its hand at foreign languages.

This is something we’ll need to get over if the UK economy is ever going to get back on its feet. Who knows, with a clever multilingual online strategy, soon your business could be ranking on the Sunday Times’ Fast Track list for fastest growing exporters.

Christian Arno

Published 20 May, 2011 by Christian Arno

Christian Arno is Founder and Managing Director of Lingo24 and a contributor to Econsultancy. He can also be found on Twitter

23 more posts from this author

Comments (1)

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Harry Thompson

It is interesting to see that 70% of UK companies are not exporting on line. This could be down to a number of things. There are many barriers that businesses have to go through when trying to pursue opportunities abroad. These include tax laws other forms of legislation.

almost 4 years ago

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